How to be a Muslim at NYU after 9/11

Through my work with NYU's Islamic Center, I became a public face of Islam. I was also a kid in way over my head

Published June 3, 2017 6:30PM (EDT)

"How to Be a Muslim" by Haroon Moghul   (Rick Bern/Beacon Press)
"How to Be a Muslim" by Haroon Moghul (Rick Bern/Beacon Press)

Adapted from "How to Be a Muslim: An American Story" by Haroon Moghul (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

When I finally moved into Weinstein Hall, where many freshmen were dormed, I was confronted with such overwhelming diversity I had no choice but to reduce it to manageable size. A few new friends and I decided to go to the first desi dance party of the semester. I am by familial origin Pakistani. Ethnically, though, I’m Punjabi.

It is an intimidating ancestry.

For if there’s one thing Punjabis are famous for, it’s the thumping bhangra that provides the soundtrack for most South Asian weddings. Not just sound, but movement: spectacularly boisterous dances accompany bone-rattling bass. I love(d) the music but couldn’t make my body do anything remotely publicly acceptable with it. Or any other genre.

Ted, who’d had the locker next to mine for four years (his sister, Linda, couldn’t believe I liked Green Day), would say hey to me every day for each of those eight semesters. But after prom, Ted said,

“You danced like you had a stick up your ass,” which was, I think, the last thing he said to me, ever.

At least I tried dancing at prom.

Cf. the first South Asian party at NYU Fall ’98. Our epic failure commenced with our almost Caucasian timing. With friends, Shams and I ascended a hauntingly vacant staircase only to enter a vacant auditorium saturated by music so overpowering it settled in my skull as a migraine. By the end of the first hour, I’d left, having done nothing but observe an increasing number of cute girls flirt with not-me. Not-me also drank several glasses of unhelpfully unspiked fruit punch. Because I wasn’t about to not dance at dance parties for the next four years, which is how the South Asian club had been advertised to me (viz, a club for clubbers), I decided to give the Islamic Center a closer look. Shams came along. He could dance. So maybe he just pitied me. But it was more than that.

After our visits to the Islamic Center at NYU, a little, L-shaped room that served as prayer space, meeting hall, social club, and dining room, we decided not only that we could take the IC to the next level but that we should and must. Inspired by the fact of each other’s existence, we came to believe there must be many more like us out there. If we built it, they would come. It was a desire that more than overwhelmed me, consuming all my energy and enthusiasm. A decision that produced one Haroon, but prevented me from becoming other, possibly more interesting, and likely much happier, Haroons.

At the Islamic Center, Shams and I were quickly put to use, launching and editing a newsletter, Al-Falaq, or “Daybreak.” Later I renamed it Aftab, or “Rays of light.” (I had seasonal affective disorder.) At the last meeting of the school year, I dared to propose we produce a magazine: Blue, after the sky — open horizons and so forth — but this suggestion was greeted with blank stares and the chagrined clearing of throats. Ten minutes later, an outgoing senior nominated me for vice president. To have a more senior role in the organization had never crossed my mind. But I ran, I won, and won again; I’d be vice president for two years. I would come to be at the center of a burgeoning community and pushed my utmost to expand its reach, funding, and membership, meaning more eyes were on me, more attention, and more judgment. Maybe I was too stolid to track these feelings. Uncertain about my Islam, not a practicing Muslim, just a year out from a bout of amateurish atheism, already socially anxious and representing a rising Muslim institution? But wasn’t it better to at least stay involved? On top of that, I was pretty good at the work—and while few others could, fewer would.

It wasn’t like there was a ready crop of eager young leaders whom we could turn to. Whenever panic about my hidden impieties set in, which was rather often, I told myself: It’s just a small community in a big Manhattan. It’s just a few years. All this will fade. I anticipated I’d become a lawyer, on the theory that law and medicine were the only respectable professions available. (Also, my brother had chosen law, so there’s my range of imagination. Blue indeed.) For all this light I wanted to shine, most of me remained obscured in shadow. Me, a lawyer? Living in suburbia? After freshman year, for example, I enrolled in the Summer Arabic Language Program at Middlebury College, up in a corner of Vermont where the outside world could not intrude. I’d learn the Arabic needed to understand my religion and enable our Islamic (Center) Revolution, and my parents were excited too, which was good because they were the ones footing the bill.

* * *

We were studying Arabic numbers that day—I don’t mean the improvements on the clumsy Roman variety but number agreement in Arabic grammar. In Arabic, words can be singular, plural (which, unlike in English, means three or more), or a rarely used dual. Also unlike English ones, Arabic nouns are only pluralized if they describe a number between 3 and 10. That means you’d say “one star” and “three stars,” but “twelve star,” or even “one thousand and one star,” because Edward Said. This all made sense to the class until someone asked about 11, which left our professor flustered—was it tied to 10 or did it make like 12?

He singled me out in no time. “Haroon, you have a Qur’an.” It may’ve been the first time I was religiously profiled. I raced to my room and panted back with a hardcover holy book, a dark-green edition that remains in my library. Professor Ben Amor flipped to the twelfth chapter, “Joseph,” and asked me to recite the fourth verse, wherein Joseph tells his father Jacob (“Israel”) of a dream. “O my father,” Joseph relates, “I saw eleven star, the sun and the moon, and they prostrated to me,” and the next words out of our professor’s mouth sent a sciatic tingling down my legs. “Did you all hear how eleven is inflected?” he asked the class, most of whom were not Muslim, did not have a Qur’an before them, and in general had no idea what the hell was happening.

Professor Ben Amor seemed stunned by the laws of Semitic physics— the holy book of his religion was The Chicago Manual of Style of his language, so that even now, fourteen hundred years on, should he have a question about grammar or usage, the Qur’an was a kind of final arbiter. He turned to the student who’d set this whole encounter in motion (who was, incidentally, entirely and hopelessly lost): “Eleven star,” he said, pronouncing the Arabic as it had been vowelized in the Qur’an—singular in form, though plural in valence. “That’s your answer.”

Arabic has a continuity and consistency, dating back fourteen centuries, that most modern languages cannot claim; English, Spanish, and French didn’t even exist when Arabic was an established language of high culture. I’d never had any kind of relationship to the Qur’an before, but now I wanted to belt it out, cry it, sing it, share it—at the end-of-summer variety show, I recited chapter 86, “The Night Star.” To learn grammar was to appreciate the book’s poesy, which in turn was to break open a once-inaccessible text. This wasn’t just comprehending, though: it was falling in love. Even the shape of Arabic, spilling out in earnest strokes and zealous dashes and hyperactive dots, filled me with surprising warmth. I saw God in the cursive sparseness, the cracked and fragmented verses, the elliptical themes, jumping from story to lesson to consolation to consternation to contemplation.

He was there. In His book. Not in someone’s mosque or a congregation but in the very enunciation of every letter. And it was poetry, too: Good prose you cannot put down. Good poetry, on the other hand, makes you stop and look at the world all over again—like you never have before—every few lines. To read was to be refreshed. To recite was to be renewed. Exhaling the words was inhaling oxygen. A few students and I even woke up well before dawn—super early in Green Mountain July—to pray together. I found Muhammad in Medina and God in Vermont. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, overly full of my faith—and I’m sure they were used to this kind of response—I went to some of my professors and asked, “What about Friday prayers?”

“What about them?” (My grammar may also have been corrected in the course of this exchange.)

The director told me he’d make a room available, and even allow me to advertise services, on condition that I lead them or find someone else who could—this was a secular program. It was also a language-immersion program. Everything would have to be in Arabic; students enrolled in the program could not speak English, and I mean anyEnglish. Not for the last time, I found no one else who would consider leading Friday prayers, even as many of the students wanted to attend Friday prayers. I interpreted this to mean I should, and so I did. My sermons stand as the most clumsily phrased and possibly least inspiring in Islamic history, not surprising given my Arabic. “God is good. God is God. I like God. Do you know God? Pittsburgh is the most beautiful city in the world.” By the sixth week I gave up and just recited Qur’an, because at least I knew that was grammatically correct. At nineteen, all but an imam. Thus I returned to NYU.

And was sucker punched. We were losing our adorable little L-shaped prayer space. A fancier student center was on the way. But we’d have no prayer space in my remaining three years, because previous sentence. New and returning students would be tossed into New York City with nowhere to pray, take a breather, or connect with fellow Saracens. I hadn’t the least idea how the Muslim community had earned Loeb’s eighth-floor prayer space in the first place, but now it was my problem. “With every difficulty,” God says, “there is ease.” Not after the difficulty. At the same time. And why stop, after all, with a prayer space? I told Shams, whose parents that same summer had made him transfer to a college nearer to them and cheaper for them. “This means we can do what we’ve been talking about!” he said. “Not just at NYU, but at my school, too.”

In my more recent travels across America, I find thriving Muslim communities, especially on college campuses. These often enjoy halal dining options, their own prayer spaces, sizable events budgets, solid relationships with various student organizations, female leadership— and perhaps most significantly, Muslim chaplains, women and men to whom students can turn for mature advice, pastoral care, institutional access, and religious expertise. Chaplains are a great development in American Islam, freeing students to focus on academics, student life, and new opportunities for personal and social growth.

They were foreign to my generation.

Many of our parents had built many of our first institutions, and we built upon them. But where we had to figure out how to do so, our parents, raised in Muslim circumstances, didn’t. They were born into an Islam they carried here, and sometimes thoughtlessly reproduced. We, on the other hand, were determining what to keep and what to let go of. There were few we could look to—many who had the religious knowledge lacked the sophistication, generosity, and creativity to deal with a dynamic, progressive student body, while those who could be leaders had no mandate behind them. We had to find an authority to defend the decisions we’d make.

So Shams and I became Trojan horses. We read side by side, though he was back in Mississippi and I was still in Manhattan. We took courses in our respective philosophy departments, which had become our common major; we spent our free time discussing Muslim thinkers and issues in overwhelming detail, with the result that we felt more ready to understand whether our visions could be realized, should be amended, might be negative. Where these visions first came from, I do not know. Perhaps our parents, whose pieties copresented with insane professional ambition.

The self-starting syllabus opened with Islamist thinkers. Those who believed Islam had a clear role to play in politics. I’m glad we covered them, if only to confirm our feeling that they did not have much ground to stand on—Khomeini’s Islamic Republicanism, for example, was just a Hegelian reaction to statist secularization. The shah enforced Westernization, so the clerics took power to enforce a remedial Islamization. Where the dialectic would next take Iran seemed obvious. We moved on to the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at- e-Islami. A generation of Muslims not too different from us, trying to take ownership of Islam from a religious establishment viewed, not fully falsely, as too content with the status quo. Their solutions, though, were authoritarian; they used religion like Stalinists used Marx.

But we didn’t find what we were looking for in Western philosophy, either.

The Islamic Center at NYU was to be the launchpad of that project, not just because it was there, but because I believed it could be that place. Whenever we’d increase the size of our prayer space, the congregation would fast catch up, and soon enough threaten violation of the fire code. We didn’t have to make people want to go to the mosque; we just had to build a mosque people wanted to go to. The Catholic Church at NYU offered us a temporary prayer space. We booked rooms and halls across campus, like any other club. But unlike any other club. What in freshman year had been a small community with potential had become, by my third year, the busiest club on campus by number of activities—out of tens of thousands of students. Destiny. Convergence. We wildly exceeded our own expectations— we had jazzy advertising, fun events, and a special buzz to our name. We made being Muslim something cool. I was excited and terrified. I suppose I’d built my own personal roller coaster.

* * *

My country had been attacked. In my religion’s name. To slow those who not only believed in but pursued the goal of civilizational war, whatever hesitations I had about my place in the world would have to be pushed aside. And they were—though not without the cost every suppression exacts. There was much we could have done differently. But a lot, so much, too much, was done right; it remains astonishing to me that in the year of the worst such attack in American history, the Islamic Center at NYU was the most active student institution on campus (again). We won awards. We had spectacular turnout. More students became Muslim that year than any previous. We were on fire. I was alight. Though my legs might be shaking, my stomach quivering, my clothes inappropriate to the occasion or I was simply the most junior and least qualified person speaking, still I was there.

Representing the Islamic Center became my life. I perceived my place in the community, and the crisis in our country, as fate working its ways; because I was relatively well read in Islamic history and because, in no small part thanks to my upbringing, I could hold my own at many of the events I was called to, I felt called. I did not give out, give in, or seek to absolve myself of the burdens of the moment.

But don’t misunderstand me. I was no rabbi, priest, pastor, professor. I was a kid in way over his head. Reporters I’d never met stuck microphones in my face and rattled off listicles before the Internet invented them: Islam, jihad, Shari’ah, suicide bombing, polygamy, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Taliban, terrorism, Palestine, explain, explain, explain! Now! Now! Now! You had eight seconds and, oh yeah, if you fuck it up, you might give added momentum to the hawks eager to use 9/11 as a global casus belli. It was their story of what had happened, and why, versus no story.

We weren’t in any position to offer our own. But we would be.

My friends and fellow NYU Islamic Centerists went above and beyond what anyone could’ve expected, but our biggest accomplishment grew out of my admission of my own unpreparedness for the role I was thrust into. Not to mention many of our senior leaders were seniors, and a lot of our institutional memory would graduate with them. This was, I realized, why so many Muslim organizations failed to get off the ground. Individuals masquerading as institutions, the problem becoming obvious when inescapably that person declines, fades, passes on, or merely moves on. Or is crushed by his work.

That semester, I took my second-to-last philosophy requirement, Philosophy of Language. I couldn’t get myself to focus, skipped most of the lectures for obligations I felt I had no choice but to attend to, and by the end of the semester found myself with a paper due in twenty-four hours, on top of pending media requests to explain whether Islam and therefore Muslims were not compelled to war with the West. I e-mailed a friend from class, Michael, and asked to read his paper. Then I rather amateurishly rewrote it. I got an e-mail from the professor the very next day, asking to see me in his office. Michael must have received the same. He had us sit across from him—Michael hadn’t the faintest idea why he had been called in—and the professor read from my paper, then Michael’s.

Before he got three sentences into Michael’s, I said, “I did it.” I turned to Michael. “This had nothing to do with him.”

I got a zero (for the paper)—I finished with a C- overall. My lowest grade in four years. Fall 2001 was the only semester I didn’t make dean’s list. I’d been working diligently to achieve a great GPA—for what exactly I don’t know—and now that wasn’t happening. The Islamic Center was hurting me. There was no career here, no paycheck, no ticket to graduate school. But if I learned any lessons, they were small ones. During my last semester, I took a course on Czech literature. It was the only class I took for me and me alone, that had nothing to do with imposed professional ambition, perceived religious obligation, or identity politics. Who knew I’d find something that echoed within me. A part of the world that was Western, like me, but experienced the treachery of modernity, like me. Most Slavs could not imagine that the world had only one direction, that history and national identity were domestic partners, that everything turns out okay. It was also my last final ever. I remember walking to the Astor Place 6 in the rain. What, I wondered, if I went to graduate school and studied Czech, maybe Russian and Hungarian?

I fancied a musty home on a bucolic campus, lined with bookshelves, snow outside and me inside, a fi re that still didn’t keep me warm enough, always reading or writing, studying or teaching. I could detach myself from being forced to be a Muslim, from always being called on to defend, explain, and analyze, from the civilizational choices on offer. That same spring, though, Israeli forces assaulted Jenin. Thousands of New Yorkers came out to protest in solidarity— many in rallies I helped to organize—but the American right decided out of conviction or deception to conflate al-Qaeda with all Islam, and their narrative was beginning to win. I might’ve hoped that after 9/11 we would go back to normal, that no one could do anything as senseless and supercilious as invade Iraq on no grounds whatsoever, but that’s what happened. America would plunge herself into a permanent, escalating emergency, trapped by Islam. Just like I was. Prague was a pipe dream. I’d never wake up from September.

I tried to make the most of it.

The Islamic Center needed someone who could represent the community, advocate for it, defend it, but most of all push it forward, because it could not end here. Not on my watch. Not just with a successful response to terrorism. That’s the campaign we set ourselves to, “Mission: Masjid,” inseparable from the broader effort to secure a permanent prayer space on campus, to make sure American Islam would have a home for the kind of Muslim I could be, had I had the courage to admit to it. I called on Shams and he answered. He wrote up a three-page document advocating for our cause, printed at a local Staples on creamy résumé paper, bound and topped off with a black back and transparent cover. I thought this the zenith of professionalism. The proposal concerned the necessity, viability, and benefits of a “Muslim chaplain,” of which, I believe, there was only one anywhere else in the country at the time, at Georgetown University.

I went, backpack very much attached to me, to the office of a senior university official, a woman whose stunning workspace occupied the rarefied top floor of NYU’s library. It occurred to me that there were levels of power and influence I hadn’t the slightest idea of. I was shown in, very painfully aware of my ungainly backpack straps flapping around, shaking like my quivering legs, which at least were hidden inside jeans (yes, I wore jeans), and tentatively offered her our proposal. Unexpectedly, she asked me to sit down, which I did, like an idiot, with my backpack still on. This formidable woman proceeded to flip through the proposal—admittedly, there wasn’t that much content—while I sat there hopeful that Garamond was the right font and fearful that I might vomit from sheer nervousness and, if so, whether I should volunteer that this was one more reason why we needed a chaplain. After a few minutes, she tossed the proposal to the side of her desk and stared through me as if I was just another window in her office. Or perhaps she was thinking about the towers. “I think religion’s caused far more harm than good,” she pronounced, “but I’m happy to look this over.” She meant my religion.

What could I say to that? Invite her to Friday prayers? I (superfluously) summarized the proposal, thanked her for her time, shook her hand, and left, certain we’d hit the wall. But she read it. I know, because she e-mailed me soon after to say she was impressed.

Before September 11, 2001, when you faced south down Thompson Street, you’d see the twin towers. To your immediate left was NYU’s modest Catholic Center, where our Muslim community had been offered a temporary space. Today, there’s a new World Trade Center. In place of the Catholic Center is the Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, with an odd casting over the outside, and a noncommittally modern interior. The CASL includes the Islamic Center’s full-time prayer space, as well as a much larger room for the hundreds who show up for Friday prayers. It’s ours, but by the time of its completion it was already too small. Though that’s a small price to pay. And we paid. Money. For the view alone, the Islamic Center’s might be the neatest Muslim prayer space in North America. Through a wall of glass windows, you take in the refurbished Washington Square Park and, through the famous arch, down Fifth Avenue, the twinkling nighttime lights that look like so much sidereal eye-candy, all the way up to and including the Empire State Building.

I don’t think I’m prouder of any other project I’ve been part of. Not in my whole life. I helped build a growing community, defended it at its most vulnerable—when our city, our country, our sense of ourselves, and even my religion were attacked—and kept on, establishing a fixture on Gotham’s religious landscape. My hope was that the Islamic Center would grow from there, on its own energies, into an institution that could never be identified with or reduced to any one person. But here’s the catch: I don’t know if I should be proud. Even as I am honored by my role in the development of such a place, I cannot ever imagine doing the same again, precisely because it feels fraudulent. I did not pray regularly. I was going out on dates. I was not what I thought a Muslim could be, or should be. And I held myself up all that time as an Islamic leader. I was giving Friday sermons.

I did so, of course, because we had few if any other available preachers, and I usually spoke in broad, general terms—Islam as a worldview, so on and so forth, staying away from topics that’d render me baldly hypocritical—but there I was all the same, at the front of the mosque, standing tall. Should I have held back because my Islam was not up to some externally imposed standard? Should I have sat on the sidelines instead? Even after September 11th? I liked what I did. Kind of. I was good at what I did. Really. I don’t know who else would’ve suffered a thousand interviews, spoken to hundreds of journalists, juggled so many requests, written up funding proposals and long-term vision statements.

I was front and center when most everyone else wanted to run away.

In "A First-Rate Madness," Nassir Ghaemi argues that the mentally ill thrive in crisis. Perhaps there’s something about their constitution that produces an enviable limpidity of purpose; a lifetime of struggling with one’s inner demons steels oneself for other kinds of challenges. When they are roused to action, Ghaemi insists, they are exhausting opponents. They calculate the odds against them with sobriety and restraint. Their pessimism is their courage—they have always faced grimness within, and so when the world is darkness without, they alone are prepared, because they alone have lived through lightlessness. The problem is that the world is not an emergency. So what do these same do when the storm breaks and sunshine returns? They might make life a permanent emergency. Or they might fall apart.

I got to do both.

By Haroon Moghul

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